Waste not, want not: The mobilization of Sisters Camelot


Sister’s Camelot is a group of young people that I call the “new hippies.” Like their predecessors, they don’t buy into the consumer culture, they are not war-mongering, they believe it’s good to eat organic food and ride bicycles to conserve the health of the environment, but in contrast, they don’t have the same arrogant, judgmental edge that I encountered among the hippies of my generation. These kids still want to change the world, but they have a lighter touch. I think they are somewhat resigned to the military-industrial complex, as though they see what an impossibly huge machine it is and all they can do is try to cast light into its shadow. They give off an unruly warmth, like fire.

Sister’s Camelot wants to bring into public consciousness the idea that we are our brother’s keeper. The loosely-knit group’s goal is to build sustainable communities, where people help each other out and learn to know and trust each other regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, economic class or educational background. According to one of Camelot’s brochures, its intention is to “spread social change through acts of kindness.”

Because Sister’s Camelot has realized that in America you can live on what other people throw away, it has developed a focused network of distributing rescued food. People call Sister’s Camelot when their freezer breaks down and everything is melting fast. Volunteers will be there in half an hour and have the food given away within the next half-hour. Once, a big semi truck full of organic food—broccoli, avacados, milk, soy milk and so on—tipped over. When Sister’s Camelot was informed, they mobilized a small army of people to transport the food to different street corners and give it all away.

The practical mission, not the philosophical mission, of Sister’s Camelot is so specific that the City of Minneapolis had to invent a name for what it does in order to issue a permit. For eight years it has been licensed to run a “mobile food shelf.”

You might have seen them on a street corner, their painted hippie school bus packed to the gills with stores of produce, the words “Free Food” on the inside of the open back door inviting anyone and everyone to help themselves. Maybe you thought, “Hey, this is my lucky day.”

You might have also encountered them on a cold, dark night, standing at your door, convincing you, gently, to donate to their cause. They collect perfectly good but nearly-expired organic food and give it away in neighborhoods where people often struggle to make ends meet. It’s food that’s too close to the expiration date to sell legally but too good to throw out with a good conscience.

Door-knocking in Mpls. and St. Paul
Countercultural though Camelot may be, it nevertheless needs money to do what it does. That’s where the door-to-door canvassing comes in—although canvassing is only partly about raising money. It’s also a way to promote dialogue about sustainable living and to suggest the idea of people working together to take care of the needs in their communities.

It was around 20 degrees the evening I accompanied Jeff, one of the organizers, on his canvassing rounds. He said he has actually gone out in minus-5 degree weather. Eric, the guy who drives the food bus and fixes stuff that breaks, said he has gone out in minus-30. What?

At each home, Jeff introduced himself in a friendly way, and explained in less than a minute what Sister’s Camelot is, why it is trustworthy, and why the organization deserves a contribution. A laminated show-and-tell accompanies the succinct speech. There’s a picture of the painted bus and a letter from the attorney general confirming Camelot’s 501(c)3 status. Jeff says he stands a reasonable distance away so he doesn’t scare people when they come to the door.

The sound of the name Sister’s Camelot right away inspires imagination, suggesting something fanciful and perhaps epic. (It comes from the feminist reimagining of the Arthurian legend in the book “Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.) His speech appeals to the desire people have to help others, to be good stewards of the planet, and sometimes to be part of something a little off the beaten path.

He says, “Hi, my name is Jeff. I’m a fundraiser for Sister’s Camelot. We are a mobile organic food shelf. We work with co-ops that buy a lot of food in bulk so they have a great deal of excess. Rather than have that excess food go to waste, we put it in funny-colored buses and drive it into low-income neighborhoods and distribute it to folks who are having a hard time getting by. We’ve been doing this for the past 7 years, and we manage to save about 8,000 pounds of food a week. We are a nonprofit, though, so the only way we get funding is through support from the community, which is why I’m out here tonight, hoping not to lose an ear to frostbite, and trying to raise money so you can be a part and help us continue to do this. If you’re able to help I can write you a receipt because, as we’re also a 501(c)3, it is a tax deduction.”

I couldn’t believe the lights that went on, the people who came out (a couple of them wearing adorable hats), the woman who invited us in, the people who seemed eager to get out their check books. Only one person, who had a wonderful, sparkling smile and listened attentively, said she was sorry she was not in a position to help. Jeff thanked her graciously and gave her a brochure.

One guy obviously identified with the idea of preventing potential waste from becoming actual waste. He called our attention to the attractive porch floor we were standing on, and explained that he had made it from leftover scraps of wood. He had cut narrow scrap boards into squares, beveled the edges, laid them down like tiles, and then sealed them with a coat of shiny, transparent something-or-other.

Canvassing is definitely a way to find like-minded individuals; for example, Chris, another of Camelot’s organizers, found Camelot’s pro bono lawyer while door-knocking. Whenever spontaneous conversations erupt before the spiel is even over, there’s no telling what might happen.

Giving Away Free Food
Sister’s Camelot distributes food in a colorful, psychedelic-looking, very large 1987 school bus. Every year it is parked at the May Day Festival in Powderhorn Park, where people are invited to add their 2 cents worth, that is, paint whatever they want to on it.

One year some children painted the word “Crips” on it. Being an overtly nonpolitical, nonreligious group, partisan messages aren’t acceptable. Amy, a volunteer, tried to explain why it wasn’t cool. “I’m not just trying to say ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ No. It’s important not to write ‘Crips’ because then the Bloods can’t get any food,” she told them.

On a Thursday in January we drove out to Albert’s Organics, a warehouse near Roseville, to pick up whatever food was available. When we climbed in, David, a volunteer, said, “You forget how big a school bus really is.”

Immediately behind where David, Chris and I were sitting is the walk-in freezer that Eric built. The doors were open and we pushed through the plastic strips hanging in the doorways to go through to the back. Slippery, shiny, pale green linoleum covers the floor. A “railroad track” of rollers runs down the center so boxes can be scooted in easily.

Everything is ship-shape and immaculate. A big reminder sign “Check Oil” glares out from behind the steering wheel. A compass bobs on the dash. An old, small electric fan points at the driver. A First Aid kit and materials for “cleaning body fluids” can be seen near the front door.

The bus didn’t break down or anything. But it IS old. Sister’s Camelot has decided to either replace the engine or get a new bus. Eric says the freezer can be moved if necessary. The good news is that Camelot just got a grant for $15,000 from The Wedge, the co-op on Lyndale Avenue. Whichever solution is decided upon, there will be money to do it. Furthermore, there will be money to convert Camelot’s vehicles to run on used vegetable oil.

On Tuesdays, a location for the food giveaway is determined ahead of time; anyone can call Camelot and find out where the bus will be. But Thursday is random day.

Typically there’s a lot of food to pick up. But the day I went there were about 12 chunks of Mozzarella, about 100 individual string cheeses and four flats of red peppers. That was it. I had thought we’d be loading for an hour but it took maybe 5 minutes. The guys said it was highly unusual. After the food was all given away, there was nothing left to compost and virtually no cleanup necessary, also highly unusual.

We first stopped in front of the burnt out old Gustavus Adolphus Hall at 17th and Lake. For some people the open door with the free food sign brought out skepticism. I’m sure I would be skeptical if I’d never heard of Camelot. It seemed like people might be asking: “Do I look like someone who needs a handout?” “What’s the catch?” “You’re not going to preach to me, are you?” “What’s wrong with it?” “What’s the expiration date?” (Sister’s Camelot is actually very scrupulous about expiration dates. On dairy products they will distribute on the same day as the exp. date, but not if the exp. date is the day before. That’s the cut-off point.)
There were plenty of people, however, who didn’t wonder at all. They were really grateful, as though they believed this type of serendipity is normal. Many took a Camelot flyer as they were leaving.

Camelot doesn’t want people to rely on the free food. It’s a chance thing. Chris says it “feels so much more powerful when people don’t expect it.” The surprise element (some people call it anarchy) carries over to everything.

How Sister’s Camelot gets organized
What fascinates me is that no one signs up to work certain days. Eric and Chris figure that altogether there might be a pool of 50 volunteers, but they don’t know. They don’t have a volunteer coordinator. Somebody always appears to help. Four “salaried” employees, who receive what I would call a stipend, are fairly constantly involved. Chris and Jeff are facilitator/coordinators, Eric is the bus driver/maintenance guy and Karen is the bookkeeper.

The “collective-esque” people (as they call themselves) of Sister’s Camelot clearly eschew top-down control. There is no hierarchical structure. All decisions are made by consensus at regular Monday night meetings. Whoever shows up has the power.

Chris and Jeff have to be present—to guide the process, and keep track of it. As most people know, consensus takes forever. “Of course,” Chris says, “consensus can make things more difficult … [but] I’ve never seen where a good consensus model doesn’t work. I’ve only seen where people give up [which isn’t the same as it not working].” He cites as an example a person in Sister’s Camelot a few years ago who wanted to run the organization, but whose goal was thwarted by continued resistance from other members who wanted everyone to be equal. Eventually the will of the group prevailed.

Amy, one of the volunteers, a hip-hop singer who organizes benefit concerts, teases Chris about running the organization. She says, “Chris says there are no rules.” To him she says, “[Your] rule of ‘no rules’ supercedes all other rules, so you’re the boss.”

It’s true Jeff and Chris, like bosses, take a lot of responsibility, but each of them has just one equal voice in the decision-making process, and the responsibilities they take on are at the behest of the decision-making body. Part of the money raised by canvassers goes to pay the staff. It also covers the rented storefront space at 37th and Chicago (right across the street from the Baha’is), the computer system, utilities, the cost of maintaining three vehicles (the bus, the van—which had been vandalized the night I went out canvassing—and the mobile kitchen), and a percentage of donations for the canvassers.

Canvassers are not hired or fired. It’s a natural process. If they don’t make enough, they quit. Actually, I’d be surprised if any of the volunteers go canvassing strictly for the money. For some, meeting new people, getting a feel for the heartbeat of the city and making grassroots connections is enough of a reward.

Getting rich is obviously not what these young people are about. They’ve apparently taken vows of voluntary poverty. Chris, who used to be a campaign organizer—first for the Democrats and then for the Greens—and now wants nothing to do with partisan politics, says the more pure his life becomes, the lower his income.

Many of them are artists and musicians. Beth, a volunteer, organizes an art night every Tuesday where a meal is usually shared. Jeff, a drummer, came to the Twin Cities because of an invitation to make an album. Chris will soon don his socially conscious singer/songwriter hat to headline for a benefit concert in Florida.

Most come from supportive families. They belong to a rustic, subcutaneous layer of society that makes life warmer and kinder—that thinks about what the world will be like for their grandchildren.

To find out where the food will be on Tuesdays, call 612-746-3051. To volunteer or make a donation (they don’t accept stocks and bonds), call 612-746-3051.